Uses and Gratifications Theory

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Description of Uses and Gratifications Theory. Explanation.

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Definition Uses and Gratifications Theory. Description.


The Uses and Gratifications Theory is a theory of Mass Communication that places the needs, motives and gratifications of media users in the center of interest and sees media users playing an active role in the media consumption process.


Lasswell was the first to counter traditional mass communication theories based on a passive role of audience, such as the Hypodermic Needle Theory and the Persuasion Theory.


Laswell's 4 Media Functions

Lasswell introduced the concept of the 4 Functions of Media on individuals and society:

  1. Surveillance
  2. Correlation
  3. Entertainment
  4. Cultural Transmission

In the late 1960s this concept was embraced by the Functional School of sociologists Parson and Merton. They shifted the focus from media effects to media functions. In their view, society was like a living organism composed by small parts having each a specific function. The whole system is made up by sub-systems which all contribute to satisfaction of primary needs.


Blumler and Katz

Researchers Jay G. Blumler and Elihu Katz expanded this earlier concept and published in 1974 the most authoritative article about Uses and Gratification Theory: “The uses of mass communication: Current perspectives on gratifications research”. Due to the completeness of their work, Blumler and Katz are regarded as the conceivers of the Uses and Gratifications Theory.

Audiences, till then regarded as a passive mass, from now on constituted of individuals who actively searched, ranked, used and consumed media for different reasons and purposes and in different ways. Modern audiences are thus goal oriented, meaning that they use media to satisfy one or more specific needs. A need could be a use or a gratification (= satisfaction, enjoyment). Compare with: 8 Hidden Needs, Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, McClelland Theory of Needs. In the authors’ opinion audiences choose and use a media for the following 4 Media Purposes or Uses and Gratifications:

  1. Diversion or Entertainment: people use media to get away from everyday problems and routine (escapism).
  2. Personal Relationships: people use media as a substitute for real emotional and interpersonal interaction. It is frequent that people watch a soap opera to live emotions they should have typically experienced in their real family life.
  3. Personal Identity: people find themselves reflected in texts and TV programs and they also learn behaviors and values from media.
  4. Surveillance: people use the media to satisfy their need for information. This is typical for people watching weather reports, financial and business news, etc…

Denis McQuail

Recently, with the coming of new media (internet and video games) the original Blulmer and Katz’s list has been widely extended. In 2000 Denis McQuail, active in the field of mass communication studies, famous for his Attention Model, ratified this methodology, slightly modifying the order and the names of the 4 Uses:

  1. Information
  2. Personal Identity
  3. Integration and Social Interaction
  4. Entertainment

Critics on Uses and Gratifications Theory

The most authoritative critics to the theory come from James Lull in 2002. He criticized the main assumption of the Uses and Gratification Model: people seek out media to satisfy a personal need, especially to entertain themselves. J. Lull suggested instead that audiences don’t accept always the content of media and moreover not all media are meant to provide gratification or to satisfy a need for entertainment in people. According to Lull audiences don’t always benefit from the use of media and more important they don’t take on in media consumption willingly and independently.

Other relevant critics come from researcher Ien Ang who argued that Uses and Gratifications Theory tends to focus on individual needs, disregarding the social context. Also the content of media is ignored and especially the quality of the message which is delivered, while there are no clues about how users perceive those message and what they get from them.

Last but not least, a strong limitation of the theory comes from one of its developers E. Katz, who in 1987 admitted the doubtful nature of the study itself. Since the theory relies exclusively on self reports of media users, data recalled from people’s personal memories might be distorted due to people’s inaccuracy or external influences.

Finally there are people arguing that research in the direction of the Uses and Gratification theory and the widespread of the theory itself have been created and promoted by large media organizers.




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Compare with: Play Theory of Mass Communication  |  Two Step Flow Model  |  Persuasion Theory  |  Limited Effects Theory  |  Cultivation Theory  |  Dependence Theory

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